Canada needs to lead in pro­tect­ing fresh­wa­ter

Times Colonist - - Islander - DAN KRAUS Dan Kraus is se­nior con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada.

It’s a lux­ury to not think about wa­ter. Most Cana­di­ans watch it flow from the faucet and go down the drain with­out con­sid­er­ing its source or des­ti­na­tion. When we do think about wa­ter, it’s only about where the near­est tap is. Many peo­ple in the world don’t have taps. More than 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence crit­i­cal wa­ter short­ages. They think about wa­ter ev­ery day.

Rapid cli­mate change is go­ing to change the way Cana­di­ans think about wa­ter. And we are go­ing to think about it a lot more.

While sci­en­tists can’t pre­dict ev­ery fu­ture im­pact of cli­mate change, there are many im­pacts that we are al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. And most of those in­volve wa­ter.

It’s not my grandma’s weather any more. Cli­mate change has al­tered how, where and when we re­ceive rain and snow. There is more vari­a­tion in rain­fall amounts, with some re­gions get­ting a lot more and some a lot less. We are also see­ing more ex­treme rain events, with a month’s worth of rain fall­ing in just a few hours. My kids have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced sev­eral 100-year storms.

Un­for­tu­nately, it some­times takes a dis­as­ter to make us re­think our re­la­tion­ship with wa­ter — and wa­ter has some very ef­fec­tive ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple. Floods, droughts and pol­luted wa­ter that makes peo­ple sick send a strong mes­sage.

Here’s our prob­lem. For more than 200 years in Canada, we have tried to move wa­ter off the land­scape as quickly as pos­si­ble by straight­en­ing streams and fill­ing flood­plains. But drain­ing the land­scape has caused pro­found changes to the an­cient in­ter­ac­tions be­tween wa­ter and land. In the past, rain and snow melt would slowly in­fil­trate into aquifers or streams, or me­an­der through roots, stems and leaves to re­turn to the at­mos­phere. Now we push wa­ter along hard, straight lines where the ben­e­fits of in­ter­act­ing with soil and plants are lost.

In­stead of wa­ter be­ing cleaned, wa­ter is con­tam­i­nated with too many nu­tri­ents and sed­i­ments. In­stead of a gen­tle, steady re­lease of wa­ter into streams, we flush it quickly through en­gi­neered water­ways that rise and fall like a toi­let be­ing flushed.

We need to slow the flow. Re­tain­ing and restor­ing wet­lands and flood­plains are a crit­i­cal part of our adap­tion to rapid cli­mate change. Main­tain­ing th­ese habi­tats pro­vides a two-for-one re­turn on in­vest­ment when it comes to cli­mate change: It in­creases land­scape re­silience to ex­treme weather by hold­ing flood wa­ters and fil­ter­ing pol­lu­tion, and the con­served spa­ces help to cap­ture and store car­bon pol­lu­tion from the at­mos­phere. Th­ese places also pro­vide habi­tat for wildlife and op­por­tu­ni­ties for Cana­di­ans to con­nect with na­ture.

We are a na­tion that is rich in fresh­wa­ter. Canada has about 25 per cent of the world’s wet­lands by area, and more lakes than the rest of the world com­bined. But our fresh­wa­ter en­dow­ment is at risk, es­pe­cially in south­ern Canada where most Cana­di­ans live. Loss of wet­land and flood­plain habi­tats, and run-off from our cities and farms are harm­ing our lakes, rivers and streams. And this af­fects us all.

The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada is help­ing pro­tect wet­lands, flood­plains and other places that are im­por­tant for na­ture and for peo­ple. We work with will­ing pri­vate land-own­ers who do­nate or sell their prop­er­ties or place them un­der a long-term con­ser­va­tion agree­ment. This con­ser­va­tion work is sup­ported by Cana­di­ans, busi­nesses, foun­da­tions, var­i­ous pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments and the Nat­u­ral Ar­eas Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Canada.

Wa­ter is send­ing us a mes­sage. A healthy nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment is a key part of the in­fra­struc­ture for our cities and com­mu­ni­ties.

Canada has an op­por­tu­nity to lead the world in show­ing how na­ture con­ser­va­tion sup­ports clean wa­ter, cli­mate-change adap­ta­tion and our well-be­ing. Just as we need to in­vest in pipes and pumps as a part of our wa­ter sys­tem, we also need to in­vest in healthy wet­lands, rivers and water­sheds to en­sure a fu­ture of clean and abun­dant fresh­wa­ter.

If we think about wa­ter a lit­tle more to­day, maybe fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will need to think about it a lit­tle less.

DAVID BLY

Mary Lake in the High­lands was cre­ated by man­made dams, and has been left to na­ture for the past 70 years. Re­tain­ing and restor­ing wet­lands are a key part of our adap­tion to cli­mate change.

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